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How to handle a lopsided friendship

If you think a pal is way less (or way more) invested than you are, here’s what to do.

Illustration of two unhappy people sitting back-to-back with a gray scribble above their heads Getty Images/iStockphoto

Kristen’s 12-year relationship with her best friend Heather was put to the test during the pandemic. (Both women’s names have been changed at Kristen’s request to protect their privacy.) Their experiences during the past few years couldn’t have felt more different: Kristen, a single, 35-year-old behavioral researcher in San Francisco, was unbearably lonely during the lockdown. Her best friend, Heather, also 35, married and living in Los Angeles, gave birth to her first child. Kristen expected Heather’s priorities to shift as she adjusted to being a new mom, but Kristen wasn’t prepared for how upsetting it would feel to be shuffled to an outer ring of her best friend’s life precisely when she needed Heather most.

They tried to keep in touch, agreeing to hop on a phone call every other Sunday at 8 am. But Heather was a no-show week after week. “She just would get really busy and overwhelmed and kind of just forget about me,” Kristen says. With every phone date Heather blew off, Kristen’s resentment grew. “It just got so painful that I was like, ‘This is not working,’” she says.

As we juggle the demands of this ongoing pandemic, friendships have shifted in all sorts of unexpected ways. Many people now seem to have less stamina for socializing, says Kat Vellos, author of We Should Get Together, a book about cultivating friendships in adulthood. Vellos believes folks became used to having smaller social circles, and some realized they prefer keeping it that way. As a result, these people might be more choosy about the friendships they do invest time in. That’s mostly a good thing, but it can be painful for the people who are hurt that they are no longer a priority.

A lopsided friendship happens when one friend is more active in maintaining contact and the other friend is more passive about keeping the connection going. It’s understandable to be sad or upset if you’re the one constantly reaching out, sending thoughtful messages and asking if you can schedule brunch or happy hour together. According to a 2010 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, social rejection can feel as distressing as physical pain.

“We live longer if we feel connected and supported,” says Kasley Killam, a Harvard-trained social scientist who specializes in connection and loneliness, and founder of the nonprofit Social Health Labs. “So when someone expresses that they’re perhaps not as interested in being friends with us or they need a break or whatever, that can trigger this innate fear inside of us that we’re going to be alone or that we’re not of value.”

Psychologist Ayanna Abrams says having a lopsided friendship doesn’t automatically mean that your friendship is unhealthy or toxic. It’s only a problem if someone is feeling negative emotions about the pattern. To help figure out whether you’re in a lopsided friendship and how to deal if you are, Vox spoke with four friendship and connection experts.

Resist the urge to make assumptions

It’s easy to jump to conclusions and assume that if we don’t hear from someone as often as we’d like to, Killam says, “that means they don’t like us, or they don’t value our friendship.” More likely: The other person is just busy — it’s not that deep.

It’s seductive to tell yourself stories when a close friend has gone quiet. “Once that seed is in our minds, it is hard to let go,” says Danielle Bayard Jackson, a friendship coach and host of the Friend Forward podcast. Concocting a narrative about why your friend isn’t reciprocating is a common reason, she says, for a lot of friendships ending prematurely. People think to themselves, for example, “Oh, I guess she’s not as invested in this friendship as I thought. I guess her new boyfriend’s more important.”

“All of that stuff is a self-generated story,” Jackson says. You might find yourself behaving in response to a story you made up out of thin air.

The solution? Challenge these beliefs, which are likely way off-base. Are these negative thoughts based in reality, or is this your insecurity speaking? When clients express these worries to Abrams, she asks the person to imagine what their friend would say about the friendship. Next, imagine the demands and commitments the friend is juggling. This exercise usually helps bring the temperature down so the client can see that their friend is likely busy and isn’t intentionally blowing them off.

Invite, don’t accuse

People often wait to alert their friend to an issue until it’s boiled over from annoyance to full-on anger. The best time to address the issue “is when you begin feeling that distance or imbalance in the relationship,” Abrams says. She recommends pinpointing what you want more or less of and then verbalizing it.

You might be tempted to blurt out, “Hey, I haven’t heard from you in a while. What gives?” But that could put your friend on the defense. Instead, “let them know you’re reaching out to them out of a desire for their company, and not accusing them of what they’re failing to do,” she says, “which doesn’t really feel good to anyone and is not a good motivator to get them to act.”

Jackson suggests proposing plans using what she calls the movie trailer method: You should preview the experience so the other person has a taste of what’s to come. Instead of saying, “Hey, let’s get together sometime,” with them replying, “Absolutely,” and then crickets for two months, maybe say, “Hey, do you wanna get together Saturday around 7 for an hour or two? We can try this new wine bar in town. Let’s get dressed up and sip something bubbly.” In doing this, you’re giving a visual of being there, like a scene from the movie that will be your Saturday night hang.

Designing the plans that way makes it easier for people to commit. “And if they can’t, a friend who is equally interested will negotiate with you and say, ‘Dang, I can’t do Saturday, but let’s try Tuesday,’” Jackson adds.

Be flexible

Your friend may be feeling like this is more of a logistics problem, and isn’t aware that you’re open to changing your established routine. So the next time you reach out, you could say something like:

  • Would you want to try something different the next time we meet? Maybe we can grab tea instead of cocktails?
  • Instead of meeting up for brunch, maybe we could grab coffee or go for a walk in the park?
  • Maybe we can go on a double date so we can include our significant others?

Your friend also might prefer to change the mode and frequency of communication. Maybe texting is better for them instead of taking phone calls. Or they might want to talk on the phone once a week instead of exchanging DMs on a social platform they’re no longer using. Ask!

At this point, if you’ve tried a few different strategies and you’re hearing radio silence, Vellos says you should assume the universe is telling you to put your attention elsewhere. “That could be another person, another friendship, another hobby, whatever,” she says. Redirect your energy so you’re not wasting your time and getting your hopes up for something that’s unlikely to happen.

If you’re the one who can’t prioritize your friendships, be upfront about it

Lots of people may find themselves on the opposite side of the spectrum: They’re the ones who are too snowed under to invest in their friendships. In this case, it is your responsibility, as a friend, to let the other person know about what they can expect from you for the foreseeable future. It saves a lot of heartache for everyone if you tell them the truth about what is going on with you, Abrams says. Know that you don’t have to be in a stressful or busy place to explain you need space; you can set boundaries around your time and energy even if you technically could hang out with this person more often.

When Jackson was pregnant, she messaged her friends and let them know her availability was shifting but she’ll be back soon. She communicated, “I’m thinking of you. I want to get together. I can’t for the next few months, but man, I cannot wait to see you soon and catch up then.” Her friends not only appreciated the heads-up, but were reassured that she valued their bond.

If you need to let a friend know you won’t be as available in the future, Abrams suggests saying something like:

  • I know we tend to talk on the phone for hours, but I probably have an hour max on Sundays before I have to prepare for the week.
  • It’s been really hard for me to talk on the phone lately, so texting is the best way to reach me these next few weeks.
  • Hey, I know we usually talk every week. In this season of work, I’m swamped. I’ll drop you a line when things calm down.

The important thing is to be open, honest, and focused when you do connect. Aim for quality over quantity here — so when you do engage with your friends, they’ll feel valued and secure, knowing the friendship is meaningful to you too.

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